Lisa Perkins Smith has always been what you might call a go-getter. After college, she took a job with a non-profit, working full-time during the day and going to school in the evenings to learn graphic and web design. That led her to launch her own graphic design business in 2004, and in 2016, to launch Pinwheel Play, a modern indoor play space in Chanhassen. The mother of two children, Lisa realized that there were few indoor playgrounds suitable for little ones in the Twin Cities—so, like the go-getter she is, she developed her own. As both a business owner and a mom, Lisa’s schedule is jam-packed, but she’s thoughtful about how she spends her days and carefully balances competing professional and personal demands on her time. Read on to learn more about Lisa’s career and her advice for pursuing work you genuinely enjoy.
Tell us about your company.
Pinwheel Play is a modern indoor play space for children ages 0-6 and their caregivers. Our one-of-a-kind, thoughtfully-outfitted 5,000 square foot space offers daily drop-in play, memberships, birthday parties, and field trips. Pinwheel Play supports the needs of all young learners and focuses on hands-on play, large and small motor development, creative play, language development, and social skills.
Pinwheel Play’s structures are intentionally generic to provide a foundation for children’s imagination to build on. The facility offers:
- CedarWorks Playset with slides, look-out tower, and rope ladder
- Art room with weekly projects and an expansive array of materials (included with the price of admission)
- Large motor “sport court” with soccer goals and other equipment
- Protected infant soft play crawl gym and tummy time area
- Toddler play structure with tunnel
- Child-size kitchen, grocery store, stage and dress-up area
- BEAM: Digital Interactive Playground
- And much more!
Pinwheel Play is committed to safety, cleanliness, and catering to the community it serves. Families enter the fully secure building at their convenience through a coded entry.
photo credit: Nicole LaCoste Photography
What was your first job growing up, and what did you learn from it?
My first job was working at Bachman’s in Plymouth, which is where my older sister had worked. It was an okay job, but it just wasn’t for me. I disliked working in the cold greenhouse and handling dirty plants all day. I learned that just because someone else enjoys something doesn’t mean that you will. You need to figure out what you enjoy and then find a job that incorporates those things. After Bachman’s, I worked at Pier 1 Imports as a cashier. I really enjoyed working there!
Tell us about your career path before starting your own company, and how it got you to where you are today.
Out of college, I first worked for a non-profit organization called PACER Center. Because non-profits typically have limited funds, they sometimes put you in unique roles. I started doing print design projects for them and fell in love with it.
While working there, I went to school in the evenings to learn graphic and web design. In 2004, I started my own graphic and web design business called The Image Author. I loved working one-on-one with clients, having a flexible schedule, and the feeling of seeing a beautiful finished piece and a happy customer. I successfully ran the business until 2016 and did consulting work while my kids were little.
I learned so much from running The Image Author. Management strategies, marketing, financials, and working with customers are all skills I use now at Pinwheel.
Tell us the story of why and how you started your business.
I thought about starting an indoor playground for a LONG time. My son Henry was born in 2010, and I was contracting for The Image Author at the time. I often worked when my husband was home (he works shift), which meant my son and I had a lot of random day hours to fill.
We visited a few play spaces when he was a baby, and they weren’t great experiences. He would get trampled by bigger kids. I didn’t trust that the facilities were clean, and they weren’t designed for little ones in mind—younger kids were more of an after-thought. I really wanted a place that felt like home and was easy to bring a baby or toddler into. I wanted it to be warm and welcoming and focused not just on large motor skills but also language development, fine motor skills, and creativity.
In 2013, my daughter, Jenna, was born, and I felt even more strongly that we needed a place in the Twin Cities just for the little ones! I started looking at start-up costs and numbers and got discouraged—the business model just wasn’t viable. I would stay up late at night running numbers and trying to figure out a way to make it work.
It took several years of researching before we figured out that the only way to make the business work was with the locked entry system . It seemed so daunting to figure out, but I knew it was the only way. We started to get really serious around January 2016. We signed the lease on our building in May 2016 and opened our doors that August. I ate, slept, and breathed Pinwheel that summer, and I’ll never forget the joy and frustration of those long, hard days!
photo credit: Nicole LaCoste Photography
What is a typical day like for you?
My husband, Bryon, works varying shifts, so our routines are all over the place. If he’s working (which is a lot), I’m in charge of getting the kids to and from school. My son goes to school out of district, so he needs to be dropped off and picked up every day. Typically, I’m up by 6:15 and out the door by 8 with two kids in tow. After getting kids to school the craziness of Pinwheel starts. There are always a million tasks to complete on any given day.
I typically do computer and phone work in the mornings and clean in the afternoons. Morning work might include technical maintenance, advertising, financials, social media, emails, scheduling birthday parties and managing staff. I do cleaning and maintenance in the afternoons when we’re less busy. We don’t hire a cleaning service so this is always a big task! Then I’m out of the office by 3 to pick up kids and head either to an activity or back home. I’m able to monitor Pinwheel via camera on my cell phone and I continue to answer business calls in the evenings.
We almost always have dinner together as a family. My son and I also practice his piano together every night, and then it’s the bedtime routine. Once my kids are in bed, I usually have more work to complete. Sometimes I can fit in a TV show or a dip in the hot tub with my husband. Weekends are managed by my staff, who run birthday parties and help with cleaning and maintaining the space.
What advice or tips would you give to a new business owner?
I have an entrepreneurial mind, which I got from my father, so I’m always thinking of new business ideas. Even though some of my other ideas would probably be more profitable than Pinwheel, I truly believe that you’ll never have a successful business unless you’re passionate about what you’re doing. If you can’t talk for 30 minutes straight about how your service or product is going to be different than the competition, you may not have enough passion for your business.
What’s next for your business?
We get asked all the time about what location we’ll open next. We’re not quite there yet, but we’re certainly thinking about those long-term goals. For now, we’re content seeing Pinwheel do well, and we really enjoy serving the community in this way.
What do you believe is your single strongest skill that’s helped you succeed?
I’m really good with organization and follow-through. I don’t drop the ball on things. I always write things down and follow through with them if they’re on my to-do list. I also have super high expectations, which you can tell when you come into our facility.
Tell us about your life outside of your business.
I love spending time with my family. We enjoy camping and hiking in the summer, and we spend a lot of time at the Arboretum. We enjoy traveling when we get the opportunity, although Pinwheel makes it hard to get away.
I play volleyball once a week and participate in a book club. I also love spending time with my friends and extended family, so I certainly make that a priority as well.
How do you balance your career and family/personal life?
Very carefully! It’s hard to balance being a business owner for a demanding business and make sure that my kids are still my number one priority. When I’m with them, I try very hard to put the phone away and focus on them. When I’m at Pinwheel, I try to be as productive and efficient as possible. My husband is extremely supportive and helps a ton around the house, so I owe a lot of my sanity to him!
Quick Fun Facts
What’s your favorite charity?
Cure SMA. My niece, Isla, was born with SMA (Spinal Muscular Atrophy) We knew when my sister-in-law was pregnant at 20 weeks, that the baby wouldn’t live past her first year. Isla died the night we signed the lease at Pinwheel. She was just four months old. We were expecting her passing, but it still hit us like a ton of bricks. We have a dedication to Isla in our facility, and our resident fairy is named after her as well.
What age do you want to retire at?
Wow, I have no idea. I love what I do and can’t imagine not working! Maybe 70?
One travel location on your bucket list?
My husband and I would really like to visit Japan and China some time. Hawaii is a must, too.
Are you an introvert or an extrovert?
Definitely an introvert. I can certainly play the role of friendly, chatty business owner (and I have to every day!), but I prefer to be alone, working on tasks and getting things done. At the end of a busy day at Pinwheel, I need quiet time to reset and recharge, which is sometimes hard to do with two crazy kids in the house!
What is your favorite blog, podcast or book?
My favorite book of all time is Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden. I also love anything by Jane Austen.
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